This review appears in the booklet for Plain Archive's Blu-ray edition of the movie.
Dir. Todd Haynes
Star. Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara
America’s conformist postwar culture was filled with degrading, moralizing, and uniformly pessimistic portrayals of love between women. It was against this bleak backdrop that Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, later reprinted as Carol, became a lesbian culture phenomenon. Despite the public’s growing awareness of homosexuality and the expansion of urban gay and lesbian subcultures at the time, many women with same-sex desire still lacked knowledge about their own sexuality and connections to others like them. Carol is about two such women who struggle to find a space and a language they can utilize to express their emotions, with an ending that offered hope for female same-sex relationships then.
In putting Carol on the big screen, Haynes reconstructs a universal experience of falling in love in the conventional visual style. In Therese and Carol’s first encounter, first chat, first lunch, and first car ride together, he relies on the simple shot-countershot pattern to build sexual tension between them. But the specific setting of the movie—a big city of midcentury America—motivates spectators to decode the typical signs of sexual attraction shown here differently than they normally would while watching a heterosexual pairing. Indeed, in a social context where two people of the same sex dared not openly display their desire for each other, gestures such as prolonged eye contact are not just suggestive, but more critically, illicit. Besieged by the pressures of heteronormativity, Therese and Carol seek places where they can feel less intimidated to act on their desires. But those intimate spaces they manage to claim are always vulnerable to unwanted intrusions: Moderate camera distances from the women connote caution when an exchange of glances or a fleeting touch on the hand occurs; objects like walls and doors in the immediate foreground obstruct our complete view of the characters, constantly reminding us of their entrapment.
The vulnerability of the space occupied by same-sex lovers is also conveyed in the Ritz Tower Hotel scenes that bookend the film. In the narrative structure borrowed from Brief Encounter, David Lean’s 1945 melodrama about an extramarital affair, Carol opens with New York City’s nightscape as the camera picks up a man from the crowd, and follows him into the hotel. It is soon revealed that the center of narrative interest is not the man, but the women he greets. A variation of the identical situation unfolds near the end of the movie, but with significant differences in both cognitive and emotional aspects. By the time the scene is repeated, we have been clued in about the women’s past and become deeply invested in their fate. While the opening scene introduces us to the women through this random man, the later reunion scene begins with the women having possibly the last rendezvous, only to be tragically interrupted by the man’s off-screen voice. During the opening scene, our attention is quickly shifted away from the man as the camera closes in on the women. Then, after the reunion ends, the film transitions into a flashback showing the women’s winter affair from Therese’s point of view.
Carol inherits some of the essential tropes of the “woman’s film,” a category of specifically Hollywood productions targeting female audiences especially during the 1930s and 1940s. It addresses contemporary women’s issues from women’s perspective and delves into female consciousness. Haynes’s adaptation also draws on the nonlinear form evocative of 1940s movies to focus on Therese’s subjectivity. However, unlike the source novel, the film is not confined to this single character—it elaborates on Carol’s domestic life as an upper-middle-class housewife and a mother, though Carol is still observed through the prism of Therese’s self-redefining journey. Carol’s daily existence in her suburban home is often presented in frame-within-a-frame compositions that employ mirrors and walls. Such compositions regularly appear in Douglas Sirk’s 1950s Universal Studios productions and Haynes’s own Far From Heaven (2002), a tribute to Sirkian and, by extension, R.W. Fassbinder’s melodramas. In them, the female protagonist’s inner conflict propels the narrative, but there is an inherent powerlessness that she perceives and internalizes in the presence of social forces beyond her control. Unlike male-centric genres such as the western and the gangster film, the protagonist in the woman’s film is stuck in the domestic sphere and seldom allowed to translate her desires into action. Thus the melodramatic form, characterized by the inflated expression of characters’ interiority primarily through mise-en-scène, best serves so-called women’s stories.
Carol is also about Therese’s struggle to make sense of and articulate the feelings she develops for another woman. Therese’s life is detached from the lesbian subcultures that had begun to thrive in certain urban areas and she has never had sexual experience with women. Therese and her boyfriend Richard constantly use euphemisms like “that” and “those people” in place of homosexuality, gays or lesbians. Even if we assume she has heard of “those people” amid the government-sanctioned witch hunt of homosexuals, neither she nor Carol resembles the butch type the public would often associate with lesbians. Only after falling in love with Carol does Therese begin to recognize lesbians in public places, including a pair of butch lesbians in a record shop and a woman with whom she gets acquainted with at a friend’s party. Ironically, Therese’s lack of knowledge and experience emboldens her—during their first encounter, Carol seems the cliché predatory lesbian seducing an innocent young girl, but it is actually Therese who makes the first move and, later during their cross-country trip, suggests sharing a single hotel room.
Back at the Ritz Tower Hotel, everything comes full circle; we see Carol face to face with Therese as they did in the earlier department store scene. Before reuniting with Therese, Carol has given up custody of her child after a divorce battle in which Carol is legally punished for her “conduct.” Her decision to surrender is not to be construed as abandoning the child, though—as Carol implores during the divorce hearing, she is determined to quit living against her own grain, i.e. living the lie of the “happy marriage,” out of her profound and genuine love for her daughter. Meanwhile, Therese has her own moment of illumination when trading glances with the aforementioned woman at the party. It seems to transport Therese back to the earlier department store scene where she fell for Carol. The only big difference is that Therese now knows what that kind of attraction means, that there indeed exist women like her, and that she is one of them.
Current cinema no longer treats lesbianism as a taboo subject and lesbian audiences no longer need to read an illicit romance between man and woman as an allegory for their own, as many gays did while watching Brief Encounter decades ago. And lesbian characters can be more than a monolith of victims and martyrs; Therese and Carol exhibit none of the self-destructive tendencies of their on-screen predecessors, and Abby, Carol’s ex-lover and close friend, is more open and comfortable about her sexuality. Haynes’s Carol anticipates more cinematic lesbian romances set in postwar society that incorporate richer and more inclusive representations of lesbian love. At the conclusion of both the book and the film, Therese turns around and starts walking over to Carol. It is an ending all the more unforgettable because our protagonists, once and for all, take courage and give their love a second chance against all odds.